MAD MEN, SEASON SIX/EPISODE 5: OFF TO THE RACES

by E.C. Fish on May 3, 2013

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madmen_fullbodyA BRIEF LAMENT FOR PEGGY FAIR: So this was the week I was going to try to establish a little back and forth with the Claire Moshenberg segments of this season’s reviews — creating a bit of continuity between the segments, allowing me to get in on some things I didn’t get to comment on because “it wasn’t my week,” and, most importantly, putting me a couple of ‘graphs to the good before the ep even aired. Said ‘graphs were going to play off of Claire’s observations about Dawn in Episode 4 before moving into a full-blown TV geek observation that Don Draper and Peggy Olsen got African-American secretaries in the same year — 1968 — that TV private eye Joe Mannix got his and the American viewing public first got theirs. Casting Gail Fisher as Peggy Fair (and lord, I hope that wasn’t someone’s idea of a pun) that year was considered a breakthrough in the segregated world of ’60s TV, and it’s a measure of just how melanin-deprived the onscreen talent of this show has been for the last five years that casting women of color in these roles seems every bit as much a breakthrough.

Then, of course, the episode started and my cozy little nerd thesis was shot to hell. Peggy Fair in 1968 was portrayed first and foremost as Joe Mannix’s secretary and good right hand, and the breakthrough of Gail Fisher’s casting lay in the no-nonsense normalcy of her presence. On Mad Men in 2013, Dawn’s and Phyllis’s race is entirely, and somewhat embarrassingly, the point; the only breakthrough is the presence of  black faces on a show where such faces are rarely seen.

WHITE FOLKS, INTERRUPTED: The episode opens with a series of short vignettes: Peggy and Abe looking at an apartment; Bobby Draper contemplating and eventually peeling some badly aligned wallpaper in his bedroom, which is probably meant to be symbolic of some damn thing or another; the Drapers and the Rosens running into one another in the lobby, bound for separate destinations; Ginsberg returning home to find his father and the nice Jewish girl his father has set him up with; the Drapers arriving at an advertising awards banquet. In retrospect, and after re-viewing, it is hard not to think of this opening ten minutes as consisting of white people doing white things. It even features a guest shot from walking Caucasoid-signifier Harry Hamlin.

Then the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is announced, and a show that has never handled race well — as Claire pointed out last week — goes into a weird sort of free fall for the rest of the hour, during the course of which it handles race very badly indeed.

It would obviously be too much to expect that this episode would somehow not be almost entirely about white people — that would require bussing in people of color, perhaps from another show. The two actually in the cast, Phyllis and Dawn, seem to be there to provide a focus for their bosses’ guilt and apologies, with poor Dawn subjected to an amazingly awkward hug from Joan. Besides the secretaries, the only black faces we see are the kitchen staff at the diner where Ginsberg is busy screwing up his blind date, and a janitor at the movie theater where Bobby and Don go to see Planet of the Apes (questionable choice, Weiner). All are sad. None have much to do besides that.

Much more important to the plot this week are the black people we only hear about, whose rioting and looting in the streets of major cities after the King assassination is reported on radio and television, and lays a thick layer of fear of The Other over the rest of the episode. The two characters most directly affected, the secretaries, are dispatched with quickly. Phyllis, who observes that the rioting is the last thing Dr. King would have wanted, decamps with her family to Newark, while Dawn would rather stay at the office than go home, even if it means having to serve as a receptacle for her superiors’ white guilt.

As for the white folks, their reactions to the crisis seem weirdly cynical. Pete tries to use the crisis as an excuse to leave his crummy apartment for a night with Trudy and Tammy out in the suburbs; Trudy turns him down flat and then uninvites him for the weekend. Peggy’s realtor attempts to leverage the crisis into an “awfully close to Harlem” discount on the apartment she’s trying to get for Peggy, and is also turned down flat. Don knows that Sylvia is in DC, where the rioting is particularly bad; he is unable to reach her or Arnold, and thus finds this week’s excuse for the Sad Don Draper face he’s been assuming in every episode this season.

BLACK LIKE PETE?: Perhaps the weirdest moment in the episode occurs when Pete and Harry square off in the office over Harry’s concern about what the hours of advertising-free coverage of the King assassination will do to their revenues. Pete takes extreme umbrage, appalled by Harry’s ability to think about money on such a “shameful, shameful day,” and eventually declares him a “pig” and a “bona fide racist.” While I suppose it is possible to be a malignant narcissist without being a racist, having the series’ least likable character take the anti-racist side in the episode’s only discussion of racism seems like a very bizarre decision, one completely unsupported by anything we’ve ever seen from the character before. Ending his argument with Harry by piously invoking King’s wife and four children — when he himself is estranged from his own wife and daughter for his chronic inability to control his dick — drives the point home (with a THUD!). The only elements of Pete’s character that justify the scene are his pretentiousness and his love of getting shirty, both of which are on ample display. This undercuts, for no discernible reason, what might otherwise have been a genuine expression of humanist sentiment.

DON WON’T OVERCOME: Don Draper had a rough childhood, drinks too much, and has difficulty expressing his emotions. Again. Tune in next week for another repetition of same.

COMIC RELIEF: Tom Cruise’s cousin (who was also on Lost) as a hippie-dippy would-be client, man. Also, Ginsberg’s dad as a distaff Molly Goldberg. Neither was funny.

This would all be a little bit easier to take if the season thus far had given us any indication that what we saw in this episode actually mattered to the ongoing story. We have none. Phyllis, Dawn, Ginsberg’s date, Ginsberg’s dad, the hippie-dippy guy, and Harry Hamlin could easily join the Mad Men cavalcade of disappearing supporting players. The events of this episode — occurring as they did with the characters in historical extremis and behaving somewhat strangely — could shape the narrative later, or not. If this is the Martin Luther King equivalent of Season Three’s JFK episode “The Grown-Ups,” it is probably the latter. Five episodes in, this season of Mad Men has established almost no momentum, with its supposed lead character Don (who has been in a state of drunken stasis since the season premiere) serving as a kind of narrative ballast.

Given the excellent work done in past seasons of this show, I know that chances are good that this season will somehow be pulled together, and that the confusing meander of the narrative will somehow all make sense. I just hope that by the time it happens, I still give a shit. For the moment, this season jangles like a bag of nickels.

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E. C. Fish is the editor and publisher of The Spleen.

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